Opening Exercises 2016: The Course of Human Events

Published in the October 5, 2016 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly

Our Opening Exercises in September followed a disturbing summer scarred by violence in the United States and overseas. I used this year’s Pre-read selection, Our Declaration by Danielle Allen ’93, to speak to our freshmen about what it means to be a college student in troubled times. Here is what I told the Class of 2020.—C.L.E.

September is an ebullient time on college campuses. We welcome new arrivals and returning friends with waving flags, reverberating drums, thrilling parades, and soaring expectations. It is, by its very nature, a season of fresh starts and high expectations. It is a season of optimism.

And we are indeed excited to welcome all of you to Princeton. We look forward to getting to know you, to teaching you, and to engaging with you. We have great hopes for you.

Addressing the Class of 2020 at Opening Exercises
Denise Applewhite

But this, clearly, is no ordinary September. This September follows a searing summer, a summer filled with loss and grief and violence around our planet and in this country. In the United States, this September comes in the midst of a coarse, bitter, and angry presidential election.

This September, our joy at the fresh start to an academic year is tempered by anxiety about a global society that is fractured, fearful, and in pain. How should you react to that dissonance? Is it wrong to take pleasure in the traditions that greet you today, to savor the beauty and tranquility of this campus, to feel excitement at the beginning of your own college education, when so much is broken around us?

Tonight Danielle Allen will talk to you about the Declaration of Independence, itself a document forged in times of strain and conflict. You have read her book(1), so you know that she is worried about, among other things, a comma, a comma that might have been changed to a period by a printer nearly 240 years ago.

How do you process a concern like that at a time like this? A 240-year-old comma! It is, to be sure, a comma connected to a serious argument about political theory and history, but it is still a comma. How can we spend time arguing about long-forgotten commas, when the world is fraught with tension? What does it mean to be a college student when the course of human events seems so frenzied and tumultuous?

The phrase that I just used, “the course of human events” is, you will no doubt recognize, drawn from the Declaration of Independence. It is a phrase that Professor Allen examines in depth. In so doing, she offers you wisdom relevant to the question that I just posed, about what it means to be a college student—or, for that matter, a decent and conscientious person of any kind—in moments that are difficult and unsettled.

Professor Allen observes that “course” is another word for “river,” and she encourages us to conceive the “course of human events” as like a river. Rivers have different patches. They change tempo and character. They can be slow and calm, places to drift on a lazy summer afternoon. They can have raging rapids that are perilous or exciting or both, depending upon the temperament and skill of the rafter who dares traverse them. They can merge into giant waterways filled with dangerous traffic and tricky currents, like the great Mississippi.

Right now the course of human events pulls hard upon us, sweeping us along on treacherous tides. It sometimes feels like we’re working hard just to come up for air and grab a breath.

Here are two insights that you might take from Professor Allen’s book as we navigate this turbulent stream. The first is that we’re all in it together, and not just as separate individuals bobbing along in more or less the same place. Rather, we are part of a collective effort. You might say that we are all sailing on, or clinging to, the same raft.

Those of you who begin your undergraduate or graduate careers today, or who enter the ranks of the staff and the faculty, have joined a community. Our destinies are linked to one another in myriad ways—not just for the years that you spend on this campus, but long beyond them. Being a Princetonian is now—was from the day that you accepted your offer of admission, really—a part of your identity.

Professor Allen reminds us that the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence shared an identity, too. They claimed to be one people. The Declaration begins, “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people…”

What did they mean, claiming to be “one people”? They did not all agree with or like one another. In less than a century, they would fall to war against one another—talk about the course of human events! But being a people meant that they were in it together, they were in a deep sense stuck with one another, or, to put it in loftier terms, they shared a common destiny.

Those of us who gather in this chapel today will, for the next few years at least, move through the course of human events together. We can learn from one another, if we listen. We will do better if we look out for one another—if we remember, in other words, that even if things seem to be going fine for us personally, they may be going badly for someone else near to us—and, if so, we owe that person our help and support.

We can also make a greater difference beyond our campus, and do more to help communities less fortunate than our own, if we work together. That is what I mean when I say that we are a community, and that we navigate this river, this course of human events, collectively.

Here is a second insight you might take from Professor Allen’s book. She says that “human events, like the infinity of droplets in a river, cohere. Human events are going somewhere; they have shape and direction; there is meaning to their sequence. We should be able to tell where we are collectively headed” (111).

Well, that is good news. It would sure be nice to know where we are headed these days. Professor Allen says that is possible, but she also warns us that it is not easy to figure out where we are going. She says that “Life’s currents, like a river’s, invariably have a direction, but understanding them is a challenge of surpassing difficulty” (129). Where do we get the wherewithal to discern the direction of the river when doing so is a question of “surpassing difficulty”?

To discern the shape of a river, it helps to know something about where it comes from—which means knowing something about the course of human history. You need to understand something, too, about what pulls human beings, and human events, in one direction or another—about, in other words, values, psychology, and all the ideas, impulses, and forces that move our bodies and souls.

Giving you this knowledge and capacity, this sense of the human, this perspective and vision, is the most fundamental purpose of liberal arts education in general, and of your Princeton education in particular. Keep that purpose in mind even as you feel the tug of current events. You will— and, indeed, you should—feel an obligation to address our society’s most pressing issues, to help those who are less fortunate than yourself, and to assist in healing our aching world. Service is an essential part of this University’s mission, and of what it means to be a student here.

Yet, while you arrive on this campus at a tense moment in this country’s long history, you also arrive here at an early stage in your own life-long journey. During your time at Princeton you must give yourself the freedom to grow, to develop, to follow your intellectual passions, to revel in ideas and arguments, to contemplate history, to encounter different perspectives, to wonder at beauty, and to have some fun. Give yourself the freedom to take the long view. Give yourself permission to savor your time here, and to care about commas.

You owe that freedom to yourself, because you need to prepare for the journey to come. And lest that seem too selfish, then let me add that you also owe it to society, because we will need your perspective, learning, and wisdom in the years ahead, when your generation will be expected to lead society and steward its institutions— when, so to speak, you will be pilots of the rafts on which we travel. We need you to fortify your mind and your character now so that you can help us to confront what the world will throw at us in the future, for we are all, and we will all remain, in this together.

We are excited to have you with us on that journey. That is why, even in this troubled and uncertain September, we fly flags, bang drums, cheer your parade, and greet your arrival with buoyant spirits and joyous hearts. We look forward to seeing what the great Princeton Class of 2020 will do in the course of its time on this campus. With enthusiasm and happiness, we are delighted to say, “Welcome to Princeton!”

1. Allen, Danielle. Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014.


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